Heading into this weekend’s games, the College Football Playoff likely anticipated two possible disaster scenarios. One, several of the top teams could lose their final games, throwing chaos into the order and introducing two-loss teams into the mix. Or two, all the top teams could win, and win with style, each team seemingly proving itself worthy of a playoff spot. Disaster scenario No. 2 occurred, leaving the committee with a new kind of chaos.
With the way each of the top six teams won, the two teams left out are bound to be upset. But something has to give, and so the committee is left to evaluate minute differences in each team’s résumé and to choose the four best. We’ll find out who the committee selects on Sunday (12:30, ESPN). But until then, here’s a look at the cases for and against each of the top teams in playoff contention, ordered by the teams’ likelihood of appearing in the top four.
Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1)
Case for: Alabama solidified its case with a dominant 42-13 win over Missouri. The Crimson Tide’s strength of schedule is the best among the playoff contenders, as they have four quality wins and their loss isn’t too damaging. Alabama presents the playoff committee with the total package.
Case against: There’s not much to say here. Compared to the other playoff hopefuls, Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss is worse than TCU’s (and obviously Florida State’s lack of a loss), but that’s about it. If the worst flaw on the Tide’s résumé is a road loss to the No. 12 team -- before that No. 12 team’s best offensive weapon got injured and lost two games -- that’s a good place to be.
Verdict: In. Alabama can book its tickets to the Sugar Bowl for its semifinal.
Oregon Ducks (12-1)
Case for: Oregon took down the only two-loss team with a legitimate playoff shot by dismantling Arizona on Friday. The strongest part about Oregon’s résumé is its four marquee wins, the best set of wins over ranked teams of any contender.
Case against: Oregon’s 51-13 rout over Arizona was a remarkable display of dominance, but it also slightly harmed Oregon’s case, too. After all, if the Ducks could so easily trounce the Wildcats in the Pac-12 title game, why couldn’t they beat Arizona at home earlier in the season? It’s a very slight downside and won’t give the committee too much pause, but it’s a weird quirk on the Ducks’ résumé.
Verdict: In. Had Alabama not beaten Missouri so easily, Oregon may have been able to move up to No. 1. It won’t matter though, because regardless of their order, Oregon will play in the Rose Bowl and Alabama will play in the Sugar Bowl.
Florida State Seminoles (13-0)
Case for: Sure, Florida State won another game by a narrow margin. The key difference on Saturday was the opponent was worthy of a close game. Florida State may not have secured a dominant victory like Alabama, Oregon or Ohio State, but it took down its toughest test of the season, despite having just one week to prepare for Georgia Tech’s option offense. The Seminoles didn’t always make it look pretty -- OK, they rarely did -- but time and again they won. That should earn them the right to a spot in the playoff field.
Case against: Can anyone honestly look at how Florida State has played this season and say it is one of the four best teams? It may have three quality wins, but its best win (Saturday’s over Georgia Tech) doesn’t stand up to the other playoff contender’s best wins.
Verdict: In. At 12-0 there isn't much doubt that Florida State will get in. The committee may be independent thinking enough to drop the Seminoles behind as many as three one-loss teams, but it won’t push them out of the playoff entirely.
Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1)
Case for: Any team that can so thoroughly rout a quality opponent with its third-string quarterback -- as the Buckeyes did Saturday night against Wisconsin -- clearly has an abundance of talent. The fact that Ohio State has three exceptional quarterbacks is astounding, but it takes more than a good third-string quarterback to keep the offense running and the defense pummeling. The Buckeyes’ defense held Melvin Gordon to just 2.9 yards per carry. Looking at its complete résumé, Ohio State’s 49-37 win at Michigan State is one of the best of the season.
Case against: There are two clear flaws in the Buckeyes’ playoff case. Their strength of schedule is near the bottom of the playoff contenders, and their loss to Virginia Tech is the worst of any contender's. However, the committee appears to have given Ohio State a bit of a pass for the loss to the Hokies since J.T. Barrett had been so newly thrust into the starting role. Or the committee has concluded the Buckeyes’ dominance since Week 2 makes up for the defeat.
Verdict: In. The committee is supposed to re-evaluate each team’s case every week, but through last week it had decided Ohio State’s resume was better than Baylor’s. After the Buckeyes routed Wisconsin 59-0 and Baylor beat Kansas State 38-27, it’d be hard to argue the Bears made up ground on Ohio State. That means the Buckeyes get the fourth spot in the playoff.
Baylor Bears (11-1)
Strength of schedule: 56
Quality wins: vs. TCU, vs. Kansas State
Losses: at West Virginia
Conference champion: Yes (sort of)
Case for: The focus for Baylor was whether it would catch TCU. With its win over Kansas State, this should be the week Baylor finally catches the Horned Frogs. In their nine games against common opponents, not counting each other, TCU earned superior results over Texas Tech, West Virginia, Kansas State and Texas while Baylor had better results against Oklahoma and Kansas. That’s an edge for TCU, as is its nonconference win over Minnesota, a better win than any of Baylor’s nonconference victories. But is that margin so large that it negates the Bears’ head-to-head win? In past weeks I’ve argued Baylor’s head-to-head win shouldn’t count for much because it was just a three-point margin in Waco. That’s still true. But since the resumes of Baylor and TCU are so close now with the Bears' win over Kansas State, the committee may have no choice but to put some emphasis on the head-to-head outcome. Baylor deserves to be ahead of TCU.
Case against: In a Baylor vs. TCU debate, the Bears may win, but what matters is the overall playoff debate. In that discussion, Baylor’s resume is fairly average. It’s strength of schedule is the lowest. It only has two quality wins (albeit two impressive ones). Its loss is more damaging than any other playoff hopeful's except Ohio State, and even its conference title is less valuable. While common sense may suggest Baylor is the Big 12’s “One True Champion,” the Bears are only co-champs.
Verdict: Out. There’s simply not enough that stands out for Baylor to get into the playoff. Coach Art Briles can stump for the Bears endlessly, but in pretty much every category the committee will consider, there are several other playoff contenders who are superior to Baylor. Ironically, the Bears may get what they're arguing for: their head-to-head win over TCU to matter. Only that tiebreaker will make Baylor the Big 12's representative in a New Year's Six bowl rather than the playoff.
TCU Horned Frogs (11-1)
Strength of schedule: 42
Quality wins: vs. Kansas State
Losses: at Baylor
Conference champion: Yes, (sort of)
Case for: Anyone who has watched TCU when it’s clicking would be hard-pressed to deny the Horned Frogs are one of the best teams in the nation. TCU’s final opponent, Iowa State, was clearly outmatched, but whether against weak foes like the Cyclones or stronger ones like Kansas State, the Horned Frogs have put together some dominant performances. Plus, even though Minnesota fell out of the playoff rankings, it still gives TCU a better nonconference win than Baylor has.
Case against: With Oklahoma’s loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, TCU will end the year with just one win over a team that finishes in the committee’s top 25. That’s significantly worse than the other playoff contenders, all of whom (including Baylor) have at least two wins over ranked opponents. As the season wore on, the Big 12 clearly developed into a three-team race. TCU only went 1-1 in its games against the other two, missing a crucial opportunity to earn another quality win.
Verdict: Out. Ultimately, this has less to do with what TCU did than what every other playoff hopeful did in the final week. While the committee is supposed to look at the full body of work, they’re only human, so they’re likely to display some recency bias. While every team behind TCU earned a marquee victory -- and several did so decisively -- the Horned Frogs just beat up an Iowa State squad that went winless in the Big 12. That’s not TCU’s fault, but it left the Frogs with no chance to combat the other playoff hopefuls’ late surges.
Strength of schedule rankings come from Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. The committee does not use any metric for discussing strength of schedule, but these rankings can still provide a guideline of how committee might judge each team's body of work.